It was an agonizing calculation. To get his wife and three daughters to safety, Abed Fhili, 44, left them behind in a Syria suffocating from war. His thinking went: The route through Syria, Turkey and the Balkans is too dangerous. Better to go with just his son, reach a safe country and file for family reunification so the others could follow by plane.

But three years later and living in a small town in eastern Germany, the closest he has come to seeing his wife and daughters is through video chats on his phone.

Cases such as Fhili's are at the center of a dispute that helped torpedo German talks to form a governing coalition last month, and they are a critical fault line in the negotiations to come. On one side: conservatives who say that Germany cannot afford to take in any more of such migrants. On the other: progressives who argue that asylum seekers will adjust much better if they are not separated from their loved ones.

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